While Labor Day has evolved into a holiday to mark the end of summer, it originally was celebrated to honor those who worked hard, got dirty and did it all over again.
“Work Hard. Get Dirty. Repeat” is part of the motto of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers, more than 60,000 workers in the aerospace, construction, shipbuilding, railroad, manufacturing, mining and power-generating industries.
It is hard, honest and reasonably well-paying work. Boilermakers make about $27 an hour, or $56,600 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry’s growth rate is about 4 percent annually.
But employment isn’t steady. Boilermakers frequently have to travel for work, and they endure all sorts of conditions – high in the air, underground, confined spaces that can be dark, damp and poorly ventilated.
Just getting the chance to become a boilermaker requires working hard and getting dirty.
Aspiring boilermakers start as apprentices. The brotherhood requires 6,000 hours of work with an experienced boilermaker – a journeyman, in trades lingo – and 144 hours of classroom instruction over four years. Apprentices can’t even take classes until they have completed about 1,000 hours with a journeyman.
“You learn it the way that it’s been done for a hundred years,” says union member and teacher Joe Rush. “No one is born knowing.”
“To get skilled craftsmen, you have to pass the skills on,” says union member Adrian “Chief” Hemby.
When they’re ready, apprentices can study at the Newton B. Jones Regional Training Center in Rock Hill. The 10,000-square-foot training center on Patriot Parkway off Cherry Road is a state-of-the-art facility with 18 welding booths and a 12-foot-tall indoor rigging station. The center also serves as the office for Local 456, which includes about 350 union members in South and North Carolina.
Overall union membership in the Carolinas is among the lowest in the country as both are “right-to-work” states, meaning employees don’t have be union members. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is well known for her anti-union views.
Yet there is a small uptick in union membership in both states, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, amounting to about 100 new members a year. Carolina boilermakers who want to work, said Hemby, the business manager for Local 456, are working.
About two classes of 40 students are learning at the training center. First-year students learn to read blueprints and understand simple boiler operations and job safety.
Second-year students get more instruction in blueprints, learn how to rig pieces to get them into place, and undergo even more safety training.
Welding is a key aspect of the training. Welds must withstand the pressure of a 12-ton jack to pass inspection. Depending on the application, X-rays also help check the strength of welds.
It’s a demanding pace, and Hemby estimates that about two-thirds of apprentices drop from the program.
Those who complete the apprenticeship learn “it can’t be done” is not an acceptable response, said Rush, an instructor at the school. They learn how it can be done, and that even if you’re working on a boiler for a second or third time, what you did the last time may not work this time.
While the work conditions are dangerous, and the tools can be dangerous as well, boilermakers have a lower rate of injuries and illness than many other construction jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nonetheless, some job surveys rate the occupation as one of the worst jobs for pay, work conditions and growth potential.
Technology jobs frequently rate high in such surveys. Hemby chuckles at the difference.
“You can design things on the computer, but they’re not functional,” Hemby said. “Someone still has to built it or maintain it.”
That’s the job of a boilermaker.